BRATTLEBORO — While some people are satisfied with the new courthouse security, Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Shriver remains concerned.
"I am always concerned about the safety of everyone using the county courthouses and without certified law enforcement officers present every day, I remain concerned," said Shriver. "Thankfully, nothing has happened the last two weeks to necessitate calling the Brattleboro Police Department to the courthouse so we have yet to have the new system tested by any criminal activity occurring on the premises."
The Stockholm-based security group, Securitas, replaced the courthouse security that was provided by the Windham County Sheriff's Office in Brattleboro and Newfane for years. This month, Securitas began its 22-month contract at $618,255. It covers courthouses in Brattleboro and Newfane, and one in Burlington. Security at the two Windham County courthouses will cost $23,027 per month and there is an option to extend the contract by 12 months.
Sheriff Keith Clark made the decision in June that if his office did not receive a contractual increase of 10 to 12 percent in fiscal 2017, he would not be able to break even and he would withdraw his contract. Clark said he had voiced concerns about the issue for a couple of years. The Judiciary offered all sheriff's offices in Vermont a 3.5 percent rate increase for fiscal year 2017, but Clark did not accept it.
"I was not unhappy with the Sheriff Department, I thought they did a wonderful job when they were here, too, and I understand Keith Clark had to make a business decision and that's his prerogative," said Presiding Judge of Superior Court of Windham Unit Karen R. Carroll. "We were as pleased with them when they were here as we are with our new security."
Carroll said she has been "extremely pleased" with the security transition.
"It's always difficult to experience change, especially when it's about something as important as security," said Carroll. "I think I speak for the entire staff; we're all quite comfortable and happy with the change."
Carroll said in making this transition possible, the staff explained to the new security officers at the door and in the courtrooms about how things are run at the Windham County Superior Court. Carroll noted it was not bothersome at all, and some things they went over included how each judge likes to have things done in his or her courtroom.
"I'm impressed with how quickly they've taken on that role and been able to manage," Carroll said about Securitas taking over the courthouse security.
Before the Judiciary selected a security entity, Caroll said she had one specific concern and made it known that whatever type of security the courthouse had, at least some of the guards had to be armed.
The contract with Securitas includes an armed presence at each courthouse, Matt Riven, finance and administration chief at the Vermont Court Administrator's Office previously told the Reformer. The "designated court security officers" do not have the authority to arrest people but can detain them during court proceedings when a court order calls for it and a transport sheriff is not present.
When Security and Safety Program Manager William F. Gerke, Jr. was asked if security guards are armed at the courthouses in Windham County, he responded, "While there is an armed Securitas USA Court Security Office presence in Windham County, we are not commenting further on this subject, as a strategic security operational issue."
Carroll said she felt strongly about the need for a firearm presence among some of the security officers at the courthouses.
"I think you only need to open up a newspaper to see there are often incidents in courthouses that call for a response by someone that is armed," said Carroll.
Gerke noted that all of the current court security officers have law enforcement and/or military experience and that the performance of the security guards during this short period of time has been "excellent."
"We have surveyed some stakeholders including judges and judiciary staff and all have been very pleased with the performance and outcomes to date," said Gerke. "All surveyed agree their security and safety needs are being met."
"The transition has been very smooth," said Shriver. "There is a learning curve on courtroom procedures, and everyone seems eager to learn."
Others have also felt that the new security has gone above their expectations.
"I have to say that my expectations were not very high but the new courthouse security personnel have proven me very wrong; they have exceeded all expectations," said Supervising Attorney and Windham County Public Defender Mimi Brill.
Gerke said that issues and challenges were addressed in the formulation of the contract and the training of the court security officers to "minimize any problems."
"In a dynamic environment like a busy courthouse, there are sure to be some operational issues and 'bumps' along the way, but this was the same for the Sheriff's Department when they provided the same service," Gerke told the Reformer in an email.
Overall, the main difference highlighted between the security offered by Windham County Sheriff's Office versus Securitas is law enforcement. There was a routine at Windham County Superior Court that when people had arrest warrants out for them, they could come to the counter and turn themselves in, which required the deputy to arrest them on the warrant.
"I am not aware of the court developing a consistent procedure to be used for arrest warrants," Shriver told the Reformer. "Warrants are issued when defendants fail to appear or are impossible to find, so when we ask those defendants to appear somewhere else to surrender, it seems antithetical to the purpose of the warrant."
Brill noted this difference as well, but without concern in the change.
"There are some adjustments regarding the fact that the new officers do not have the same powers to arrest and to serve legal process, but that has been dealt with by the court staff and the changes are not particularly noticeable from my perspective," said Brill. "Of course it is still very new, and other adjustments may have to be made."
On this matter, Gerke said that Securitas' approach is no different than the Sheriff's and that a resolution is always sought out through internal action.
"If it can't be handled internally, then support can be requested from the police department," Gerke said. "The courthouse is serviced by the police department just like every resident, business or government agency in town."
Brill described the court officers as professional and polite and said they demonstrate a willingness to communicate and to learn. Shriver too said, "Everyone seems eager to learn." Judge Carroll said, "The people that have been hired here seem very eager and interested in knowing they are keeping a safe environment, and the staff is confident that they have a "secure and safe courthouse."
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275